A former Utah governor wrote the blueprint for presidential transitions. Here’s how it should work.
President-elect Joe Biden meets virtually with the National Governors Associations executive committee, including Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)
When President-elect Joe Biden takes the oath of office in January, it’s not just the White House that changes hands. The incoming administration will be responsible for hundreds of thousands of federal employees.
Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt led preparations for then-Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s transition team in 2012. Although Romney did not win the election, the game plan Leavitt and his team put together has evolved into the Center for Presidential Transition
, a nonprofit that works with Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns to prepare for the enormous task of taking over the federal government if they win.
The Salt Lake Tribune spoke with Leavitt about how transitions should work and and whether the two-week delay in starting that process
after Biden won the election will have repercussions for his transition.
The transcript of that conversation has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.
Question • You’re a member of the Center for Presidential Transition’s advisory board. For those who are unfamiliar, can you explain what that group does?
Leavitt • Until 2010, transitions were very informal and mostly because presidential candidates felt reluctant to begin the process of transitioning because it seemed presumptive.
It also became a political issue when people found that there was a transition planning team and the candidates were often accused of measuring for drapes in the Oval Office. Consequently, it was done sort of in the shadows and oftentimes in quite incomplete ways.
In 2010, Congress passed the Presidential Transition Act
, which imposed an obligation to do transition planning on campaigns. It also created a group of government assets that would be available to those who are representing major parties in the presidential campaign. In 2012, I was the chair of the Romney transition known as the Romney Readiness Project, and we became the first presidential campaign to actually operate under the Presidential Transition Act, and we essentially designed our transition plan from the pattern that was created in that law.
Governor Romney did not win, but we decided to write a summary of everything that we had learned from the experience so as to provide future transitions with a head start. There was literally no information about that. There were books, but they were mostly about the accompanying drama, and very little about the actual job of the transition. What are the products that the transition has to produce? How do you organize it? How is it financed? How do you measure success?
We accumulated all of our documents from this process and donated them to the Center for Public Service, a nonprofit organization that’s well-respected in Washington, and from that the Center for Presidential Transition was created.
Question • How does the center work with presidential candidates?
Leavitt • Every spring of a presidential election year, the Center for Presidential Transition gathers all of the campaigns that are still viable, and we hold a two-day meeting with them. They agree to lay down their swords at the door, and we have a conversation about what their obligations will be if they receive the nomination, and what they need to do in advance to begin the process.
It’s impossible to transition control of a government this size with just 75 days or so between the election and inauguration. If you haven’t started well before that, it’s difficult to be ready.
Question • As you mentioned, you were the head of Mitt Romney’s transition team. Can you help us understand the enormity of the scope of preparing to take over the levers of power for the federal government?
Leavitt • We divided the work into essentially four categories. The first is putting a team on the field. You have to decide what the White House will look like, how the staff will be organized. What is the relationship between the Cabinet and White House going to be? There are lots of different options, lots of different styles. How do you go about recruiting executives for the most senior non-Cabinet positions? How do you prepare them for what they will need to do. So, putting that team together is a very important step.
The second category is preparing to deliver on the commitments that the candidate made during the election, which typically happens in the first 100 or 200 days. They can make a lot of promises during the campaign, and if you’re going to deliver on those, you have to start working toward that the day after the election. You’re given government space. You’re given access to technology, computers, et cetera. You’re given access to federal agencies.
What most transitions do is basically build a miniature federal government. If you walk down the hall, on the left you’ll see the Department of State, the Department of Treasury, Department of Commerce. On the right, you’d see the Department of Interior, Department of Health, the Department of Labor, the Department of Education. You then staff them with people who had worked previously in those departments and understand how the government functions.
In 2012, then-Governor Romney made the commitment that he would build the Keystone pipeline, which is a pipeline that would transport oil and gas from Canada into the United States. For that to happen, there were executive orders that needed to be written. There were policy decisions that needed to be made at the Department of Energy, the Department of Interior, Department of Treasury, and the Department of State. You have to coordinate all of those things.
The third bucket is preparing to work with Congress to ensure that once the campaign is over you’ll have the support you need to deliver on those things.
The fourth area is caring for the vice president-elect, so they have support staff and their families have the help they need during a really tumultuous time.
Question • That’s an enormous undertaking. Are there other things that an incoming administration needs to be prepared for?
Leavitt • There are things as simple as resumes. You’ll get 400,000 resumes the day after the election, and you have to have a data system that can process those and make them available to the right people.
World leaders need to be contacted. Outreach needs to be done to groups that the president-elect needs to speak to.
All of that has to exist in advance. When the curtain goes down on the campaign, the next day the curtain needs to come up on a well-organized transition.
Question • Is there reason to be worried about the amount of time it took for the Trump administration to begin the transition process after it became clear that Joe Biden had won the election? There was lots of hand-wringing about the 16 days it took to get the actual transition moving.
Leavitt • The Biden team started this process many months ago. I think the first time I met with him was in April, along with other Democratic candidates who were still in the race at that time.
That’s the reason you start early. You have to be prepared. They knew there was the possibility that there would be delays and they had worked to try and figure out how they would manage if there were. That helped a lot.
There’s no question a cooperative, collaborative transition is dramatically better than one that isn’t.
I think in the final analysis it will work out fine. If it had gone on a lot longer than that, it would have been increasingly problematic.
Question • You served as secretary of health and human services in the Bush administration and helped build a playbook for handling a pandemic in 2005 during the avian flu outbreak. Do you worry that the delay in starting the transition might impact the battle against the ongoing coronavirus pandemic?
Leavitt • There’s only one president at a time. The incoming Biden administration is not making any decisions yet, but they need to prepare to make decisions, and information is important and valuable to that process.
One example is the distribution of vaccines. We’ve seen a great American accomplishment in the creation of an effective vaccine in an unprecedentedly short time. But, just the existence of a vaccine doesn’t do any good. It’s not the vaccine that helps; it’s vaccination. Getting those vaccines into the hands of practitioners is vitally important. Obviously, the Trump administration has been working to organize that, but in roughly 50 days, a new team will take over.
In a transition, political appointees are not the only people at work. Each department and agency appoints career people who act as a bridge between the incoming and outgoing administration.
There will be things, such as the priority list for who gets the vaccines first. The Trump administration undoubtedly has created such a list. It will be valuable for the Biden administration to review it and make certain they agree with it.
There will be logistical contracts with private-sector organizations that will be delivering those vaccines. The Biden administration will want to review those to make certain that, in their view, they are adequate.
That’s the kind of information that is necessary to have. It’s always better when that is done cooperatively in a timely manner.
I was in the Cabinet in 2008 for the transition from [George W.] Bush to [Barack] Obama. President Bush made it clear he wanted the transition to be the most cooperative and effective in history. We did many things alongside the incoming administration to help them prepare. We did tabletop exercises to make certain if there were incidents that were either national security or weather-related or terrorism-related, that they understood what their job would be.
During that period, there was actually an economic crisis, a liquidity meltdown. The new administration was consulted by the outgoing administration throughout.
That’s what makes a great transition. The more cooperative it is, the better it is. The more rapidly and cooperative it happens, the better.